“For me, a good leadership is about being human”

Daniela \\ 01.04.2022

What makes a good leader? VillageWorks’ theme of March was inspiring leaders and equality in work life. Honoring the theme, we asked VillageWorks’ member what qualities they value in a leader. Answers were convergent – empathy and the skill to be present and listen were the most valued qualities in good leaders. Furthermore, our members gave great importance on humor, strong knowledge of the industry, good feedback-giving skills and prioritizing the well-being and success of their employees and their team.

We also asked our members to bring forth inspiring leaders working in our community. Among many great candidates, most votes were given to Maria Sillanpää, the CEO of one of the Finland’s leading Though Leadership agencies, Bonfire Agency.  We interviewed Maria to hear her thoughts on leadership and work life.

While naming her, voters described Maria as an emphatic and warm leader, who always listens and thinks her employees’ interest before her own.  The CEO seemed to be moved by the given feedback.

“It sure do feel nice to hear such praises, especially since as a leader I’d consider myself to be still in the beginning of my journey. I believe that openly admitting my weaknesses and challenges makes me a leader who people feel is easy to approach and trust.”

Maria says that from the beginning, Bonfire has put a lot of effort on building a company culture that follows their own values. She also says that recruiting new people is something they really drive to make well.

“I’m happy that at Bonfire, even during the difficult times I have always been able to make choices that are in line with my values.”

“Most of all, for me, a good leadership is about being human. I’m happy that at Bonfire, even during the difficult times I have always been able to make choices that are in line with my values.”

And how do you make successful recruitments?

” We have always placed more emphasis on right attitude, motivation, and capability to learn rather than on long experience on the industry. We always have multiple phases in our recruiting process. Our aim is that as many team-members as possible could meet the candidates before making the final recruiting decisions. Now we are a team of 13, and I can say that every recruitment we have made has been a successful one. It is notably easier to be a leader for a team you know you can trust at least 110 %.”

Once the recruitment decisions have been made, Maria emphasizes the importance of getting her employees feel good at work and ensuring a good work/life balance for them.

Maria feels that in addition to more committed employees, taking care of employee’s well-being makes both employees and customers happier. Thus, at Bonfire, working arrangements can be agreed very flexibly.

“Was it a dream to move to countryside, studying or attending a lecture during office hours, changing roles inside the company, 60 % workweek, moving abroad for a winter or being a part-time entrepreneur, these are all things and dreams we can make happen. I don’t think helping employees accomplish these things causes any harm to an employer – quite the opposite, actually!”

Even though Maria has only been a CEO for a little over a year now, there have been struggles on the road too. When she first started in her new role at the beginning of 2021, covid-19 pandemic had been going on almost a year and Bonfire, just like many others, had got its part on the hardship.

“When I first started as a CEO in the situation where most of the energy went to surviving financially difficult times, I really struggled with making visions for the future. Fortunately, in last autumn we were able to turn our business back to a more stable and growing path, which has given us plenty of more energy to vision future, carry out development projects and make new recruitments.”

On the other hand, the crisis also increased certainty on one’s own, as well as on organizations’ capabilities. Witnessing the organizations capability to rapidly adapt to changing situation and surviving the difficult months with honor increased Maria’s trust for her team and herself. During the crisis, Bonfire wanted to invest in open communication.

“When you openly tell your team, for example, about the financial difficulties, it is easier to get everyone to work together as a team to beat the difficulties”

“When you openly tell your team, for example, about the financial difficulties, it is easier to get everyone to work together as a team to beat the difficulties. Afterwards I’ve been very thankful for my team for their hard work and flexibility during the difficult months last spring. Especially well I remember how amazing it was that even the chief editor of our business media rolled up their sleeves and started to book sales meetings. This is only a one example of the great team spirit we have – we truly help our colleagues, even when it’s something outside our own comfort zone.”

In addition to her team, thanks are given to her business partner Laura Pääkkönen, to her husband Juha, and to Bonfire’s Advisory Board, whom with Maria spend lot of time sparring ideas and getting support to get through the difficult times. Maria says that looking back, she should have delegated even more responsibility to others.

“Now that I look back to last spring, I should have taken better care of myself. I worked way too much and didn’t take care of myself. I’m sure that also reflected to my abilities as a leader.”

During her career, Maria has had changes to work with variety of leaders. Together with her business partner Laura, a special thanks on good leadership is given to Maria’s former manager Kari.

“I feel grateful for my former boss Kari, who helped me at the beginning of my sales career. In the beginning of my career, I was eager to book sales meetings, yet unsure of my own substance know-how. Kari patiently participated my meetings until I felt confident and sure enough to make the sales on my own.”

In the beginning of her career, Maria has also encountered some poor leadership. An experience has left her with a strong feeling that, as a leader, she would especially like to positively impact young people’s position in the work market. Maria feels that especially trainees and people in the beginning of their career are too often seen as cheap and easily replaceable labor force.

“Most importantly, people in the beginning of their careers need support, good role models and emphatic managers”

“Most importantly, people in the beginning of their careers need support, good role models and emphatic managers, so that they will gain self-confidence and trust on their own skills in the working life”, Maria says.

Instead of micro-management and performance focused thinking, Maria feels that leaders most important tasks are to ensure that everyone clearly knows their own and company’s shared goals, and to give their employees all the possible tools that allow the goals to be met. Instead of giving commands, Maria believes in sparring with her team and advisors. For the future Maria sees that rising themes in leadership are sustainability and social responsibility, the new possibilities brought by AI and technology, and increased need for more flexible working. For long, the main focus in leadership has been maximizing the efficiency, but Maria sees that future of leadership lies on humaneness.

“I think the most important thing in leadership is to be yourself with all your weaknesses, and meanwhile to recruit and surround yourself with people wiser than yourself.”


This interview has been translated from Finnish to English. Read the original version here.